"Just and Sharp Revenge": The Question of Underworld Justice in "The Spanish Tragedy"

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About this sample


Words: 1647 |

Pages: 4|

9 min read

Published: Jul 27, 2018

Words: 1647|Pages: 4|9 min read

Published: Jul 27, 2018

"'Send him,' quoth [Minos], 'to our infernal king, / To doom him as best seems his majesty" (1.1.52-3). Nestled in the lengthy opening monologue by Don Andrea, these lines introduce the overarching question that Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy seeks to answer - the question of Don Andrea's "doom." In the underworld, Aeacus and Rhadamanth argue about Don Andrea's fate, about whether he should spend his eternity "walk[ing] with lovers in our fields of love," or if he "must to martial fields" (1.1.42, 47). While Don Andrea's role in the play can easily be overlooked for the revenge plots taking place among the living characters, his importance should not be minimized. Don Andrea serves as the instigator and the Chorus for the revenge plots, which are all under the heading of his own revenge. Yet, if he is so important, why can't the underworld decide where he should spend eternity? Many episodes in the play suggest that the underworld operates as an inefficient system. The question is thus one of Kyd's intentions: The Spanish Tragedy is either a well-intentioned but unflattering portrayal of the underworld, or a deliberate statement of its inefficiency. By questioning and exploring the fairness and efficiency of the underworld, this essay argues that the conflict surrounding Don Andrea's fate positions the play as a critique of the dominant conception of the afterlife in sixteenth-century England.

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The most problematic representation of justice in the underworld occurs at the end of the play, when Don Andrea sentences all of his friends and enemies to their fates in the underworld. He asks if "he may consort [his] friends in pleasing sort,/ And on [his] foes work just and sharp revenge" and states his desire to "be judge and doom them to unrest" (4.5.15-6, 29-30). While the play is centered upon Don Andrea's quest for revenge, it is unclear who or what gives him the authority to decide the fates of others, particularly the fates of those who were not involved in his death. While his acts against the characters who were directly involved in his death are legible as acts of revenge, it is less clear why Don Andrea assumes authority over the fates of those uninvolved. Kyd thus represents underworld justice as a system that is not based on impartiality: no character makes any objective judgment about the relationship between the characters' morality and their eternal doom. When Don Andrea details how he will bestow "sweet pleasure to eternal days" on Bel-Imperia, Isabella, and Hieronimo (who commit murder, suicide, and both, respectively) and after he sadistically explains (in gruesome detail) his plan to damn the rest, Revenge simply assents, stating "then haste we down to meet thy friends and foes:/ To place thy friends in ease, the rest in woes" (4.5.24, 45-6). He assigns himself to execute Don Andrea's will, without any evidence of ensuring the righteousness of his judgement.

The play also calls into question the relationship between justice and revenge. Why is Don Andrea even allowed to avenge his death at all? Why is he sent to Revenge? The text's main justification is that Don Andrea's death was itself unjust, caused by "young Don Balthazar with ruthless rage,/ Taking advantage of his foe's distress" (1.4.23-4). It may be relevant that Andrea was briefly prevented from entering the underworld as a result of his "rites of burial not performed" in a timely way, but later, Horatio gives a touching account of how he buried his dear friend (1.1.21). The only apparent objection to the justice of Andrea's death is that Don Balthazar was unsportsmanlike in the murder. However, one must remember that Andrea's death was on the battlefield, where everyone participates in conscious anticipation of their own murder. Andrea, after all, was not ambushed and killed as Horatio was, or even secretly poisoned as are so many characters in revenge plays. Andrea knew the stakes.

The ambiguity surrounding Don Andrea's fate compels readers to question the efficiency and utility of the underworld system. As Kyd's sixteeth-century audience would expect to see the underworld depicted as the legitimate reality of the afterlife, it is provocative that the play presents the process of justice in the underworld as based on flimsy, even flippant judgements. For example, Pluto allowed Don Andrea's fate to be decided by Proserpine, when she "begged that only she might give [Don Andrea his] doom," to which "Pluto was pleased, and sealed it with a kiss" (1.1.79-80). The inherent foolishishness of the scenario - Pluto determining a man's fate according to his lover's fancy - casts doubt on the legitimacy of the underworld. How could such an indecisive and somewhat arbitrary system be functional?

It is also significant that the roles Don Andrea occupies - a lover and a soldier - are not mutually exclusive. Yet, Kyd presents that duality as enough to cause confusion and indecision in the underworld, leaving Don Andrea without a determined fate. When "the manner of [Don Andrea's] life and death" was discussed, Minos describes that he "both lived and died in love,/ And for his love tried fortune of the wars,/ And by war's fortune lost both love and life," after which Rhadamanth and Aeacus argue over different interpretations (1.1.37-40). Could something as unremarkable as coexisting as a lover and a soldier be enough to unravel the system of the underworld? Of course, the argument between Rhadamanth and Aeacus over Don Andrea's fate is not proof that his fate cannot be decided, for they did decide to send him to Pluto for sentencing. Yet the fact that Pluto does not take the decision seriously and allows Proserpine's whim to decide his fate, as well as the fact that Don Andrea's fate is still undisclosed at the end of the play implies that Don Andrea's fate is in fact uncertain. The underworld is unable to understand Don Andrea's character because he occupies the role of lover and fighter simultaneously. How can anyone's fate be decided in such black and white terms? That this question is what fuels the conflict over Don Andrea's fate suggests that Kyd undermines the concept of underworld justice by portraying it as an inefficient method of determining one's eternal fate.

The structure of the play itself alludes to the imperfection of the underworld. In particular, the play presents revenge as devastating and never-ending. For most of the characters, "though death hath end their misery,/ [Revenge will] there begin their endless tragedy" (4.5.47-8). That Don Andrea's appetite for revenge is allowed to determine the fates of so many characters raises the possibility of an infinite regress. If Don Andrea can doom other characters after (and because of) his death, it follows that each character that dies will be given their own power to exact revenge in the afterlife, a situation which could lead to mass death and destruction. The plot of the play, therefore, depends on the idea of revenge as destructive and infinite - after all, revenge causes the death of most of the characters - yet the eternal fates of these characters are decided by their own vengeful behavior. The implication is that the underworld is unethical nature. By allowing the characters' fates to be determined only by their actions in the revenge plot, their fates are reduced to nothing more than the likes and dislikes of Revenge and a vengeful Ghost. By allowing revenge - a concept that the play has established as destructive - determine the fates of the characters, Kyd undermines the ethical integrity of the underworld. In contrast to the religious, virtue-based afterlives that are the alternatives, it seems unlikely that Kyd would have endorsed a system that determines the fates of souls based on vicious revenge.

Could Kyd's criticism be directed at revenge, and not the underworld as a whole? The play-within-a-play, "Soloman and Perseda," represents revenge that is executed through trickery and deceit. The play places a distinct emphasis on confusion and chaos: staged in four different languages, "Solomon and Perseda" alludes to the Tower of Babel - a biblical allegory that explains the discord between human groups. It is discord that also fuels revenge. The play illustrates the immoral and damaging nature of revenge. The mere fact that mortal revenge is not enough - that revenge extends into the afterlife - speaks to the unquenchable sadism of revenge itself and vengeful mortals. Yet, we must ask, why is the most vengeful character - Don Andrea - allowed to be the decisive, authoritative figure in the play? If the play is a criticism of revenge, Don Andrea would be the most damned of all. Yet in terms of his eternal fate, he seems to be the most privileged among the dead. Kyd uses his critique of revenge to demonstrate the injustice of the underworld.

Ultimately, the unjust nature of the underworld in The Spanish Tragedy reflects a deep pessimism that permeates the play's action. After all, Kyd does not posit an alternative to the system of fate-decision in the mythic underworld. Perhaps The Spanish Tragedy's underworld represents the flawed system of human justice; perhaps Kyd does not believe in any afterlife. In either case, the instances of injustice in the underworld indicate that our lives and fates may very well be determined by a force that is arbitrary and unjust, if determined by anything at all. The corresponding cliché, of course, is that fate is blind. The world that Kyd constructs in The Spanish Tragedy - a world full of treachery, bloodthirsty avengers, murder and deceit - suggests a rather bleak version of reality, in both life and the afterlife. If life can be so unjust, Kyd suggests, the eternal fate of humanity might be just as hopeless.

Works Cited

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Kyd, Thomas. The Spanish Tragedie. Ed. Emma Smith. London: Penguin Books, 1998.

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“Just and Sharp Revenge”: the Question of Underworld Justice in “The Spanish Tragedy”. (2018, November 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved November 29, 2023, from
““Just and Sharp Revenge”: the Question of Underworld Justice in “The Spanish Tragedy”.” GradesFixer, 06 Nov. 2018,
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